New Start

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First-year coach Nathan Hiebert has six returning letter-winners at the core of his Hillsboro girls? team. Pictured from left are Abi Humber, Samantha Heinrichs, Amy Neufeld, Dakota Kaufman, Kassidi Luthi and Amanda Faber. Don Ratzlaff / Free Press

The Hillsboro High School girls? basketball team will take the court as the defending Class 3A state champions this winter, but the makeup of this year?s squad will be very different from the one that roared through post-season play a year ago.

The new look starts at the top, where Nathan Hiebert succeeds Dale Honeck as coach.

No stranger to HHS basketball, Hiebert has been an assistant in the boys? program for the past four years under Darrel Knoll, one year directing the freshmen team and three years guiding the junior varsity.

?Darrel Knoll is a really good coach?he does some amazing things and gets his guys to perform at a very high level,? Hie?bert said. ?It was a very good experience for me to see how a good coach coaches, how he prepares.?

Hiebert first learned success in basketball as a player. He played at El Dorado High all four years, and was an integral part of the school?s Class 4A state runner-up team as a senior.

From there, Hiebert played four years at Bethany College, including appearances in the national tournament his freshman and senior seasons. The latter ended as national runners-up.

Hiebert said with his background as a player and preparation as coach, he?s ready to step into a lead coaching role in a program steeped with a winning tradition.

?I think a lot of people wonder why I didn?t pursue (the girls? job) before,? Hiebert said. ?I?m married now, so I have some support at home, which is nice. My wife is very excited about the program. Her dad was a coach, and so she understands it and just loves it. Her support has been amazing.?

Bringing stability

As the fourth head coach in four years at HHS, Hiebert said he wants to bring stability to the program.

?Looking at the opportunity, I just felt that these girls coming back deserved a coach that would stick around and have faith in them,? he said. ?I want to try to provide that for them.?

Hiebert said he will continue to be in a learning mode as he begins his first year as a girls? coach.

?There?s definitely some things I?m still learning because girls have a different dynamic than boys,? he said. ?Some of the things that are the same, though, are in how you structure a practice. You?re going to work on the fundamentals and execute every thing to a T?that?s your goal. Those things don?t change whether you?re coaching a girls? team or a boys? team.?

Hiebert appreciates the experience Dennis Boldt and Keli Chisholm bring to the team as returning assistant coaches.

?They?re trusting in (Boldt) because he?s also been through all the different coaches,? Hiebert said. ?He?s experienced that with the girls and has support there for them.

?Keli beings a lot of experience as a former player, and has had a lot of interaction with the girls,? he added. ?You can definitely tell the girls feel comfortable with her.?

A different roster

Of course, the other huge change from last year?s state-title team is the roster. Gone are senior starters JuliAnne Chisholm, Tina Frick, Hannah Marsh and Lora Andrews, as are two key freshmen contributors, starter Candace Weinbrenner and scorer Samantha Soyez.

In fact, the Trojans will need to replace 83 percent of the scoring that fueled HHS to a 23-3 record in 2006-07.

?We are a very young team,? Hiebert said. ?We have some seniors and juniors coming back, but experience-wise, we?re very young.

?One thing I do realize is that a lot of these girls had a very integral part in what happened last year,? he added. ?I don?t want to cheapen the girls who are coming back; they had just as much a part of that state championship as the girls who graduated.

?I want to take from that experience, which is small in some areas but can be huge just because a lot of these girls have been practicing against the best team in the state?even if they didn?t get a lot of varsity (game) experience.

?We need to use that to our advantage, and I think it definitely shows.?

Top returners

Heading the list of returning letter-winners is senior Amy Neufeld, a 5-foot, 9-inch post player who average 4.2 points and 1.7 rebounds last year as a role player.

?She got some good minutes and some good situations,? Hiebert said. ?She?s been working her tail off to do the things that have been asked of her. She?s just a very hard-nosed player. She?s very competitive and has a desire to win.?

Also returning with post experience is Dakota Kaufman, a 5-11 sophomore, who came on strong toward the end of last season.

?At state she played quite a few minutes and did some really nice things,? Hiebert said. ?She has nice height, but she also moves very well in the post. We?ll have to call on her to do some nice things there.?

Also returning with some varsity experience are Amanda Faber, a 5-7 senior, Samantha Heinrichs, a 5-7 senior, Abi Humber, a 5-7 junior, and Kassidi Luthi, a 5-9 junior.

?Amanda played the guard position, and we?ll be asking her to do a lot of different things, from bringing the ball up the court to doing some nice things on offense, scoring-wise,? Hiebert said. ?She really works hard. She?s gotten some minutes at the varsity level both last year and her sophomore year. We?ve got to gain from the experience she?s had.

?Samantha has the potential to knock down some shots, so we?d like to put her into some situations where she can do that.

?We?ll expect Abi to do quite a few different things,? he said. ?She?s a really good athlete that competes hard and really has a willingness to learn. You can see her desire to be a really good basketball player.

?Kassidi played quite a bit of junior varsity last year,? Hiebert added. ?She has a knack of getting that ball in the hole. She has a natural feel for it, works hard and does some nice things in the post.?

Hiebert listed juniors Tiffany Rooker (5-7), Cassie Kroeker (5-5), and Jet Skiles (5-6) as providing much-needed depth.

?We?re going to expect a lot out of those girls to pick up some of those roles where we might have some gaps,? Hiebert said.

Style of play

The new Trojan coach said his team will run when possible and be post-oriented in the half-court game.

?We?d like to be able to get up and down, but we?ve got a lot of experience coming back in the post,? Hiebert said. ?We want to work it around and get some good looks.

?Defensively, we?re going to have to take advantage of situational timing, whether it?s full-court press or not. We?re going to have to be very smart in how we do that.

?We have some depth, but we?re gong to have to utilize certain girls in certain positions to put pressure on people and create some turnovers so we can make some easy baskets at the other end.?

Hiebert realizes varsity experience will be their biggest challenge at the start of the season.

?We have some girls coming back with some varsity experience, but we don?t have very many girls who played full games last year,? he said. ?Most of the girls we have coming back played a few minutes here and there.

?One of the challenges is getting game-like situation in practice so that when we get to games, that we?re prepared and ready to go.?

Competitive outlook

Hiebert said he is too new to the girls? arena to have any idea how his team might stack up in league play. Even though this year?s edition will look very different from last year?s, he knows his team will be seen as defending state champions.

?Being the returning state champions, every team is going to come out and give us their best,? he said. ?That?s usually what happens at Hillsboro. Everybody comes at you and gives you their best game.

?I think that?s good. That will push the girls, and I just want to keep improving throughout the year.?

Hillsboro opens its season Monday night with first-round action in the Cheney Cardinal Classic. The Trojans will travel to Lindsborg to take on Smoky Valley.

The following night, the Trojans will host Cheney in Brown Gymna?sium before playing the final round of games Saturday at Cheney.

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